As our society evolves, we are becoming more sophisticated and efficient in a number of ways; more informed, more educated, and ‘smarter’.
We measure success in numbers and prize those who can outshine others.
And yet, something fundamental to social relations has been lost. The current mental health crisis has taken epidemic proportions and the bonds that traditionally held communities together are waning.
In this article, we will unpack this notion, and look into the way recent history has, by changing notions of relatedness, impacted society at large.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will not only enhance your ability to understand and work with your emotions but will also give you the tools to foster the emotional intelligence of your clients, students, or employees.
Theories of intelligence have became more inclusive as the field of psychology came to acknowledge the fact that different types of intelligence did indeed exist and, contrary to what was previously believed, they could not be hierarchized.
This shift also occurred at a point in time in which the importance of IQ or general intellectual ability was felt to be overestimated and not a solid measure and predicator of success.
This consensus resulted from a finding that finally explained why people who exhibited average IQs outperformed those with the highest IQs, most of the time (Bradberry, 2017).
And so, aside of the well-known ‘intelligence quotient’ (IQ), new terms such as ‘emotional quotient’ (EQ) and ‘social quotient’ (SQ) surfaced and became measures used to assess these different capacities.
Since the inception of the concept of emotional intelligence, the construct received a widespread international attention, which Matthews, Zeidner and Roberts (2004) argue, has been the result of the growing importance modern society attributes to ‘emotional management’.
In this EI and Social Skills section, we will be looking at the way in which the topic of emotional intelligence is of importance in this current day and age, before contrasting the concept with other social skills, such as social awareness, social intelligence, empathy, which may at first seem similar but are in fact quite different.
The second part of this article will be specifically dedicated itself to the topic of emotional intelligence in couples, with the aim of providing a positive, emotionally healthy and lasting model for sustainable relationships.
A Time of Declining Empathy
In the last decades, neoliberal terminology has come to permeate our thinking, values and identities.
Facilitated by the emancipation of the individual from the grips of tradition, and the emergence of a discourse praising the exercise of free choice and economic responsibility, buzzwords such as ‘leadership’, ‘self-management’ and ‘growth’ have, with the complicity of corporate psychology, infiltrated themselves at the heart of our social relations.
Welfare reforms and cuts leading to precarity have pushed individuals into a roughless competition in pursuit of economic certainty, the rewards of which are framed as a ‘meritocratic achievement’.
This way, success came to be defined in materialistic, social and economic terms: those who were able to keep up were recognized as winners, whereas those who struggled were labelled as ‘losers’. And the latter could only blame themselves for their jarring defeat, since the system was built on the promise of ‘absolute freedom’.
Instead of fostering social change, and a more equal society, economic disparities only increased (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2018a), triggering a mental health crisis (see Wilkinson & Pickett, 2018b) while a cultural shift made that new personality traits -which were described by Verhaeghe (2014) as psychopathic- came to be rewarded social indicators of ‘health’ and ‘success’.
At the same time, the number of popular works of fiction, in literature as well as in cinema which featured sociopaths exploded. These were no longer represented as ‘evil’ sociopaths, but rather, protagonists that held a central role in the plot and that the audience identified, sympathized or even sided with.
Obviously, not all of these depict such characters in a positive light, even though a staggering number of them do. And the fact that modern society has become so fascinated with the theme can be, interpreted in part as something that may be worthy of concern.
Jensen asks (2018):
“is there a relationship between the fact that [sociopaths] and so popular and the fact that studies have shown that over the last thirty years -between 1980 and 2011- the empathy of young people and college students has decreased by about 50 percent?” (see the study conducted by Konrath, O’Brien, & Hsing, 2011).
Arguing that creative productions are manifestations of cultural desire, Jensen says that something can only become popular if it is successful at responding to an unconscious need with which at least a fraction of a given society identifies.
If the sociopath has become the hero of our times and empathy levels have plunged,
“what does it say about us as a people, collectively?” (Jensen, 2018).
It may suggest that pro-social dispositions of equity, inclusion and solidarity have been swapped around with an anti-social mindset oblivious to inequality, vulnerability, driven by greed and excess.
The widespread usage of social media has furthermore generated a type of narcissistic culture, which emphasizes the immediate gratification of the self, the multiplicity and aesthetics of visual experience at the expense of depth, sustainability and quality (several of these points will be delved into at a later stage of this article).
Wilkinson brilliantly points out (Nesta, 2018) the split that exists between the way in which people present themselves online and how they actually feel (i.e., how they would look like if someone had unsuspectingly taken their photograph):
“all smiling and happy, rather than about to have a nervous breakdown, anxiety and so on, which is actually nearer to the reality”.
The toll of these socio-economic transformations has been especially felt in psychiatric units and mental health care centers, which noticed from the 1990s onwards a drastic upsurge in personality disorders, which came in hand with other symptoms such as depression, loneliness, delusions of grandeur and anxiety (Verhaeghe, 2018).
In other terms, with this new model, something that had previously been fundamental to mental health, had vanished from modern social relations.
Emotional Intelligence in the Corporate World
Thus, the promotion of the topic of emotional intelligence attracted the attention of the business world as, while it was clear that individuals were becoming more career-oriented, as well as less entangled with their cultures, religions and communities, they were also exhibiting specific certain deficits which prevented them from really thriving in their ‘success’.
This is because as Wilkinson and Pickett point out, modern capitalism’s tendency is to:
“select for assertiveness, for a lack of sentimentality in business and comfort in sacking underlings, and for showy displays of economic strength” (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2018b), leaving no space for compassion, tolerance, etc.
The subsequent result of this was that:
“in high ranks of corporate hierarchies, managers often adopted unconscious controlling habits that were counter-productive and that created cultures of fear” (Chick, 2018),
which in turn also hindered upon their employees’ work performance.
That way, the concept of emotional intelligence became “a ground-breaking, paradigm-shattering idea” (Harvard Business Review in Goleman, 2005), and quickly gained popularity among businesses.
From then onwards, emotional intelligence became perceived as a skill among others and an important factor in both the hiring and promoting of employees: as Psychology Today writes (n.d.), many businesses have come to incorporate ‘emotional intelligence tests’ as part of their interview or application processes, even though research regarding whether there would exist an actual correlation between job performance and emotional intelligence is ambivalent.
The general idea was, however, to equip individuals who had chosen to work in corporate sectors and had been shaped by neoliberal mindset better social skills, to increase social cohesion – by blurring the lines between formality and informality, personal and public lives – to maximize the performance of these as well as profits.
Another perspective, held by Hardt and Negri (2001), suggests that the importance of affective labor an emotional intelligence increased as the nature of the work started to shift from material to immaterial production (human resources, marketing industries).
A New Approach to Meaningful Socialization
The unparalleled interest in the subject of emotional intelligence, therefore, is taking place during a critical period of the development and economic stage of our human societies.
As we have seen, this has fostered a type of culture that is more ego-centered as opposed to collective-centered and which has, as a consequence, engendered a certain level of social dysfunction.
It may not be entirely possible to tackle this inclination solely as individuals, as its very roots are systemic.
Broadening our understanding of the way in which our hearts, minds, and outlook on the social world may have been shaped by the internalization of an economic model that strengthens social and economic inequalities while disparaging more empathic, community-driven, and compassionate personality predispositions.
But while becoming more knowledgeable on the subject may render our IQ’s more ‘proficient’, it is only until we have fused our emotions with the subject that we can develop an emancipatory outlook.
In turn, this new perspective may enable us to overcome some of the challenges that today prevent us to connect and engage with others in an empathetic, emotionally intelligent way.
A quote from Bennet (1867-1931) captures the idea quite nicely:
“There can be no knowledge without emotion. We may be aware of a truth, yet until we have felt its force, it is not ours. To the cognition of the brain must be added the experience of the soul” (in Goleman & Cherniss, 2001).
Indeed, we cannot really know – understand the perspective of the other – without decentering ourselves from our own lives, and genuinely try to walk in another person’s shoes.
As long as we find ourselves driven by a conviction that our way is the best, that our story is the most interesting or worthy of praise, anxious to declare that our fate, our relationships, and our choices are superior than those of the rest, that our beliefs are more the sophisticated, that our god is the only one.
As long as we cannot open ourselves fully, express our anxieties and weaknesses without fear of judgment, and map out how they may criss-cross with the sorrows of others, we will never truly know what its like to be someone else or to believe something else.
We will never be able to trust, for our bond with others will always find itself threatened by the fear that if only they discovered who we truly are, behind our glittering eyes, shining smiles and light-hearted jokes, our tales of wonder, our acts of goodness, perhaps the promise of infinite appreciation and love would easily fade away.
We must urgently discard this belief, to nurture the idea that meaningful socialization and relatedness can only occur through the medium of emotional intelligence.
As the School of Life suggests, in a video called Why Truly Sociable People Hate Parties,
“We make real friends through sharing in an uncensored and frank way a little of the agony and confusion of being alive”.
Why truly sociable people hate parties - The School of Life
This statement is a kind reminder that a true friendship arises, not from the sharing of one’s blessings, achievements or even from acknowledging and praising others for their admirable qualities, but rather, from the empathy that develops from the mutual acknowledgment of one another’s relative misery.
This may seem like quite a depressive form of relating to others, but the bond that arises usually serves the foundation of a positive and supportive friendship. Without a full understanding of another person’s weaknesses, it is difficult to fully and genuinely appreciate and admire their strengths.
There are, of course, a range of relations: relations one has with strangers, those shared with acquaintances, friends, relatives, a partner, which are mediated by social awareness and affect.
In multicultural societies, social awareness is an important topic as it is, essentially, what keeps the relations between individuals relatively courteous and balanced.
While it can be defined in several ways, social awareness plays an important role in how one relates to and understands social differences. In short, the more a person is informed about practices, beliefs and forms of expressions of others, the more s/he will be tolerant of differences and demonstrate respectful behavior towards these.
Even though in some cases, certain attitudes (i.e. violence) cannot be justified, having a perspective on why it happens can be useful in redirecting negative emotions (anger, resentment) into positive ones (empathy, understanding).
But thankfully, social awareness is not only about ‘knowing’: it’s also when one is able to successfully detect the needs and feelings of others, and quickly assess what the behavior is most suitable in any given situation.
According to Yugay (2018), social awareness is effective in that it enables individuals to:
Relate and connect to people in a better fashion
Identify with their emotions and find the right words for the given situation
Recognize when others experience distress and help them to deal with it
Have communication and problem-solving skills
Be sensitive to group dynamics
As such, people who tend to be socially aware feel more connected to the place they live in, as they are not only conscious about the different forms of anguish that may be afflicting other people’s lives. They also have a capacity to sense what is and what isn’t appropriate in different situations while interacting with people of different age groups, and social backgrounds.
As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote (1948, p. 2),
“Obviously, freedom as the definition of a man does not depend upon others, but as soon as there is a commitment, I am obliged to will the liberty of others at the same time as my own. I cannot make liberty my aim unless I make that of others equally my aim.”
Social awareness is therefore the applied knowledge that one belongs to a specific network of local and global social relations, and that one’s actions have repercussions on the lives of others.
Social Intelligence vs Emotional Intelligence
When talking about topics that relate to the social world, it is important to make specific distinctions and to not think that “one model fits all”.
Further, the more one is aware of the subtleties and intricacies of psychology, the easier it becomes to target specific domains that necessitate improvement in our lives.
Here, it is important to stress the difference between social and emotional intelligence, as while they are to some extent interconnected, they refer to quite distinct social skills.
As we have seen briefly, emotional intelligence is really about the ‘experience of the soul’ combined with a certain cognitive wisdom which endows individuals with an understanding of their selves and those of others.
Social awareness, on the other hand, refers to understanding the extent to which the world is socially, politically and economically divided today and has a bona fide impact on the daily lives of not only our close ones but also our relatives, neighbors and strangers that we may never cross paths with.
When practically implemented, social awareness looks like a fusion between empathy and knowledge of different social realities.
Social intelligence, on the other hand -also known as ‘street smarts’- is understood to be a type of intelligence that more the product of nurture that of, say, nature (i.e., genetics).
It emerges from the different social exposures a person has had throughout their lives, from which they derive an understanding which influences their ability to ‘read’ and get about the social world that surrounds them.
There are several traits that make socially intelligent individuals specifically distinguishable (see Riggio, 2014):
Outgoingness, high verbal fluency, capacity to ‘pick up’ conversations easily with a range of different people, adaptable and socially flexible. People who are particularly social intelligent tend to be usually at ease in parties or big gatherings and enjoy being at the center of attention.
Awareness of social etiquette, customs, norms, and roles. They are able to easily switch between social roles to meet expectations of others, which they enjoy and are able to do with grace and conviction.
Excellent listening skills. Not hearing, but listening, which means to have a capacity to really concentrate on and pay attention to the content of what another person is saying. This is not something many people do as most of us tend to be absorbed in our own thoughts to be able to fully immerse into another person’s Weltanschauung (i.e., worldview). This trait makes the person with a high SI particularly socially appreciated, as it kindles the feeling of being understood, which is a stepping stone towards bonding.
Observational, empathetic and analytical abilities. This is the part linked with emotions; SI involves getting in touch on an emotional level with a person and being sensitive to the general ‘vibe’ the person is transmitting. SI involves also being able to get a sense of what the other person may be thinking, as well as a capacity to read their behavior.
Self-awareness and presentation skills; people high in SI are conscious that the way they present themselves will impact what other’s think of them. Therefore, they tend to invest quite some effort in their attire, appearance and manners if they are looking to impress or leave an impression on somebody.
As Björkqvist, Österman, and Kaukiainen (2000) stress, while there is a strong correlation to be found between empathy and social intelligence, these are still very distinct concepts, as the presence of one does not always guarantee the presence of the other.
Indeed, social intelligence has also been associated with indirect forms of aggressive behavior (as opposed to direct verbal and physical styles).
If empathetic traits are added to the equation, conflicts tend to be resolved in a more peaceful and non-aggressive manner (ibid).
Hence, empathy is a precious feature which if absent, can lead to toxicity in social relationships as well as disregard for other people’s emotions.
The sociopathic individual, as we have evoked, would for instance exhibit extremely developed social skills and yet their limited empathy levels enable them to carry out acts which may cause harm to others but yet the would not feel any remorse or guilt for.
Like social intelligence, sociopathy is a trait that is learned as opposed to ‘innate’ from the moment of birth (contrary to psychopathy).
This means that the environment plays an immense role in the life of an individual. Thus, the more likely the society s/he grow up in is egalitarian and values empathy, the lower the chances will be that s/he will develop given antisocial personality characteristics.
This observation calls for further elaboration on the fundamental quality that is empathy. What is it exactly? How does it compare to emotional intelligence?
Reframing Faux Feelings
After a disagreement with a partner, friend, or colleague, we may be left with certain feelings such as “criticized” or “unappreciated,” or “insulted.”
However, these descriptions are not actually how we feel about the event or conflict. These labels are referred to as “faux feelings’ and are our perception of a certain situation.
For example, if you spend hours cleaning or cooking a nice meal for your partner and they do not thank you for your efforts, you may think that you feel unappreciated. However, this unappreciation is not your true feeling; it is your response and perception of not being thanked.
Your true feelings may be “sad,” “angry,” “disappointed,” or maybe even “resentment” for spending such a long time on something without getting the appreciation you deserve.
These true feelings stem from underlying needs that have to be met. So, for the aforementioned example, the sadness and anger of being unappreciated may stem from the need to be respected and acknowledged. Perhaps you have the need for reassurance that your efforts are not taken for granted.
The faux feeling of being “unappreciated” is what you may externalize to your partner in this situation. You may explain that you “feel unappreciated,” but this may stem from your true feelings of sadness and anger and the underlying need for acknowledgment.
According to Tennen & Affleck (1990), we use faux feelings to cover our real feelings because it puts the blame elsewhere and is a sense of projecting feelings outward, rather than looking inward and taking responsibility for our true feelings.
Empathy vs Emotional Intelligence
In English, the term ‘empathy’ is a neologism that combines the Greek prefix ‘en’ (in, at) and ‘pathos’ (feeling), as a translation of the term “einfuhlung” (literally ‘in feeling’ in German).
The term was coined by the German psychologist Theodor Lipps in the 1880s, to describe the emotional appreciation that is felt of another person’s feelings (Ioannidou & Konstantikaki, 2008).
This date coincided with the emergence of the field of psychology as a science – as it at previously had been classified as a branch of philosophy – when Wilhelm Wundt founded the first laboratory in Leipzig (1879) that dedicated itself to the applied study of psychological phenomena through the lenses of logical empiricism.
From this moment in history onward, numerous psychological concepts were developed, refined and altered, in a striving for scientific precision.
The same happened for ‘empathy’, which shifted its original definition to the current one, which currently is
“the ability, capacity, skill or a self-perceived ability, to identify, assess, and manage the emotions of one’s self, of others, and of groups” (Ioannidou & Konstantikaki, 2008, p. 118).
Empathy, Korhaber writes in The Atlantic (2015), is a well-documented psychological phenomenon:
“If you see someone else poked in the hand, Bloom said, your own pain centers in the brain will light up. And scientists have demonstrated that you’re more likely to help someone whose pain you feel”.
However, as the definition indicates, empathy is not only about tuning into other people’s feelings.
It is also about being able to navigate one’s internal emotional life, by finding effective ways to deal with forms of distress that may be overwhelmingly negative or positive and therefore may impede a person to keep on going with their everyday lives.
Empathy can take the form of self-care, and an indulgent and compassionate towards oneself.
Can Empathy be Developed?
It is, thankfully, something that can be developed, as one’s experience of life broadens and as, inevitably, one’s list of embarrassing, mortifying, regretful mistakes and memories seems to expand infinitely.
While focusing on our strengths may serve as a helpful basis to nurture a positive sense of self, the result may be that we simultaneously end up repressing our more vulnerable sides, those which remind us that we should stay humble for our achievements as they after all, came at a certain price.
A clear acknowledgement of our failures, shortcomings, personality traits that others find difficult to deal with.
Our troubled pasts and relationships may be, therefore, a starting point for developing a clearer assessment of who we truly are.
This way, we may gain a more rounded understanding of ourselves and to not overestimate or exaggerate, as a defense mechanism, our skill sets and abilities.
As Juli Fraga writes (2018),
“you can’t just forget about the memories, because they haunt you.”
An extreme yet relevant example is the way in which trauma and abuse are usually processed. Following the traumatic event, a person will usually develop defenses, such as self-harm practices (cutting, anorexia, alcohol and drug addiction) to cope with their pain.
These defenses are the unconscious expression of an unspoken harrowing emotion- the mirroring of an attempt to restore ownership over one’s body, by means of violence and self-destruction.
Because people who have been victims of trauma often struggle to open up about what they have endured, ‘talking therapy’ isn’t usually the most effective option if the end goal is to allow this person to heal (Fraga, 2018).
This is because the “body captures memories of helplessness”, and therefore, as long as the trauma survivor remains alienated from their bodies, the healing process cannot take place.
Somatic Therapy and Trauma
Psychiatrist and trauma expert, Bessel van der Kolk, suggests that somatic therapy, which involves a range of physically directed activities (meditation, yoga), is effective by restoring a sense of physical safety and inner wellbeing among survivors (Fraga, 2018).
This altered state, creates a sense of empowerment and calmness which will, at a later date, facilitate the verbalization of supressed memories linked to the trauma in question.
The reason for this, Hendel argues (Fraga, 2018), it that a positive and healthy relationship between the mind and the body will heal the trauma.
And perhaps this is part of the reason why, in this current day and age, yoga and mindfulness have become so popular. There has indeed been in the last decades a particular emphasis on the notion of self-healing- it seems like we are all trying to heal from something, but from what?
In the context of a strength-based system of which the perks are enhanced through Instagram filters and guilts people who are not “living their best lives” or “doing what they love”, putting one’s genuine vulnerability and imperfection into words is for many, an arduous challenge.
As a result, we buy into narratives that make us feel like we are not enough, and because of this we must constantly strive to improve ourselves and become identical to the image that we try to sell others on social media platforms.
The reason for which somatic therapy feels so good is because it helps us reconnect with the fragile, insecure part of ourselves. A part that was, at some point in our lives, subjugated to a form of violence that we have failed to digest and incorporate into the narrative we tell ourselves of who we truly are.
And only by becoming more empathetic towards ourselves, by stepping down and putting into question our ambitions our endeavours to prove our ‘market value’ in society, can we truly listen to and connect with other’s suffering, and provide them with useful advice on the best way they can cope with their sorrows.
Exercises for Developing Empathy
There are also a number of exercises that one can practice developing empathetic responses to others and to oneself. Aside of enabling us to feel more connected to what others say, they can also make us pay more attention to the hidden meanings of non-verbal cues such as the tone of a person’s voice and their body language.
A resource put together by Sterrett (2014) may be useful if you are looking to develop your empathy, listening and observational skills. Click on this link to find out more.
Perhaps the best way to be able to conceptualize what empathy is would be to contrast it to a construct which finds itself located on the other side of the emotional spectrum: Alexithymia.
Alexithymia is a condition that tends to be co-morbid with other psychiatric conditions, and which has been characterized by a deficit in a person’s ability to mentally represent emotions.
It is usually characterized by the following characteristics (Schwartz, n.d.):
An inability to identify feelings and making the distinction between physical and emotional feelings.
Difficulty describing inner emotional states to others
Limited imaginative and creative faculties
Troubles with identifying what it is happening in their minds and putting into specific words their world views.
As a study has shown (Parker, Taylor, & Bagby, 2001), alexithymia overlaps considerably with and is inversely related to the construct of emotional intelligence. In another (Karimi & Besharat, 2010), it was moreover evidenced that the ‘giftedness’ of students was positively correlated with emotional intelligence while students with alexithymia exhibited on average limited natural talents and abilities.
And this point gives further strength to the view that without EQ, a person’s chances of success are lower than someone with the trait, even if s/he exhibits high IQ levels.
The good news is that unlike IQ, emotional intelligence is something that can be worked on.
We have seen, so far how it interconnects with different social skills; but how can it be broken down, specifically?
Breaking Down Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence refers to someone’s capacity to:
Have emotional self-knowledge
Listen to others and connect with them
Express one’s emotions in an efficient manner
Alternatively, and perhaps more comprehensively, Mayer and Salovey (1997) developed a model which sought to assess emotional intelligence in relation to four abilities, which were popularized in a best-selling emotional intelligence book authored by Daniel Goleman (2005):
An ability to perceive and appraise emotions accurately
To access and evoke emotions when they facilitate cognition
To comprehend emotional language and make use of emotional information
To regulate one’s own and other’s emotions to promote growth and wellbeing.
Emotional intelligence is thus a broader concept which, incorporates empathy (which enables people to “identify, assess, manage” emotions) with an ability to know one’s emotional responses to things and communicate them in a productive and clear way.
It’s also about an ability to correctly identify the emotions that others may exhibit (which a solely empathetic person may do incorrectly) and navigating the social world based on a knowledge of social cues without necessary ‘connecting’ with others.
For instance, it is possible to be very emotional intelligent but, in given situations not show empathy despite an ability to detect emotions and knowing which emotional response would be appropriate.
Indeed, emotionally intelligent people tend to have a stronger hold over how they emotionally respond to events and people and are able to regulate themselves if they feel the need to do so.
On the contrary, a very empathetic person which may have a low EQ may exhibit sometimes an emotional response which may be disproportionate given the given instance, while not being aware that it is generally perceived as so.
What individuals should therefore strive for is a capacity for emotional intelligence with a balanced capacity for empathy; such a quality, according to the School of Life (n.d.), enables individuals to
“negotiate with patience, insight and temperance the key issues in our relationships with others and with [themselves]”.
Online Resources for Group Activities Related to EQ
Thanks to the internet, there are endless resources out there that provide tools for individuals to hone their own emotional intelligence skills or those of a group.
We have nonetheless put a list together for you to investigate:
In its own terms, Self-Science is a platform that has been “designed to build emotional intelligence and to develop a learning community which fosters respect, responsibility, and resiliency” among children (see our article on building emotional intelligence in kids).
The contributors to the site acknowledge that while schools cannot substitute “family, church or other cultural systems that have historically shaped the integrity and morality of children”, in the current climate schools must play a role in diffusing mindsets and skills that are “central to being human”.
You may have heard of ‘ice-breakers’ before; it turns out they have a website which lists different group activities specifically tailored to “build unity, teamwork, community, and improved group dynamics”.
Happiness, Emotional Intelligence, and our Relationships
In this section, we will focus on the role of emotional intelligence in intimate relationships, and the way it impacts happiness.
Indeed, research has shown (Brackett, Warner, & Bosco, 2005) that positive emotions, emotional stability, self-esteem and a secure attachment style all correlate with partners’ reports of happiness.
While it may not be possible to come up with a definition of happiness that may suit everyone’s taste, one thing is certain; that conflict, misunderstandings, unmet emotional needs will do nothing but harm to the harmony of the relationship and the wellbeing of the two parties involved.
In a certain way, being part of a relationship involves a necessary abdication of certain ego-centric tenets that may have worked for a given person during singlehood.
The complexity of merging two beings into one shared space, intimacy and shared vision for the future is real and, in most cases, can only be achieved after an extended bumpy period of negotiations, compromises and sacrifices.
For some, this process can take place quite blissfully; there may be some fights here and there, but they always unfold in a rather civilized way: each partner can express his grievance or perspective calmly, in an articulate and thoughtful way, careful that his words will not hurt his loved one.
Sounds like you?
If so, consider yourself lucky: for many, this adjustment phase has nightmarish tones, usually stricken with feelings of sorrow, powerlessness and gloom.
In spite of this unfortunate norm, the good news is that if appropriate measures and attitudes are taken, maturity can be reached, which in turn will positively ensure the durability of the relationship.
Relationship Management and Emotional Intelligence
The competitive and individualistic personality traits that modern society has instilled among us has drizzled into the longevity of our relationships.
The dating scene has become a market where one can easily pick and discard one’s lovers, assess the extent to which they may contribute to our personal project, ideals and ambitions.
Once we have been, after some time driven, by the conviction that the chosen person is ‘not enough’ and that after all there may be more suitable candidates out there, we easily cut ties which anyway, tend to be in our times quite provisional and impermanent.
This is what Zygmunt Bauman called ‘liquid love’, which he found, had replaced the quality of relationships with a relentless thirst for quantity.
Torn between his need for security and freedom, the ‘liquid modern’, Bauman argues, forms bonds that are
“loose enough to stop suffocation, but tight enough to give a needed sense of security now that the traditional sources of solace are less reliable than ever” (Jeffries, 2003).
Amidst the giddiness and uncertainty intrinsic to modern life, we often find ourselves shaken by the belief that we should constantly enhance our value to improve our employment prospects, our physical appearance, our social network, our wealth.
These anxieties, in turn, have tormented our relationships with doubt.
As a result, we have lost the capacity to project ourselves in the long-term, envision forging ties that are durable, or even compromise on the way we should conduct our existence given that they are, after all “only a fish in the sea”.
The ‘Liquid Modern’
This mentality has made us particularly inefficient, when we have finally fallen for someone, to manage conflict, the strength of our emotions and to open up about what we truly desire and who we really are.
We would like the relationship to be unconditional, and to never end, and yet, it seems that life can change so quickly that a complete rupture may be as well take place.
So, we shield ourselves in an iron-clad attire, out of fear that we may be exposed and even abandoned in our complete nakedness.
But there is a way out of this. We have previously examined the vast array of social skills that are interconnected with emotional intelligence, and have seen, how they contribute to wellbeing, either on an emotional level or in terms of one’s relationship to the broader society.
‘Managing’ a romantic relationship is by no means easy.
Not only to we must manage our own selves and our own lives, but also ensure that we are doing everything required so that both individuals are equally fulfilled, satisfied with the relationship they share with each other, which involves respecting many unwritten and unspoken codes.
Working on Long-Term Relationships
There are a number of steps that one can take to ensure the durability of a relationship, by working on its downsides. Brian Ogolsky (in Luscombe, 2017), an associate professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, spent two years analyzing over 1,100 studies on the topic of ‘relationship maintenance’.
As his research progressed, Ogolsky came to denote patterns in what made relationships ‘tick’, based on commonly used strategies that couples adopted to make their relationship work successfully.
He put together a list (for the complete details, click on this following link) to help others thrive in romance; here it should be nonetheless noted that the findings should be taken in a prescriptive rather than descriptive manner, which may give some guidelines as to how to navigate the murky terrain of relationships.
In the case of a possible break up, there are things that can be done by the partners individually, as well as together to work on the relationship.
On an individual basis, one can:
Look down on, avoid and ignore other potential romantic partners, in their thoughts as well as in the real world.
Focus and idealize the qualities of the partner, as well as the ‘specialness’ of the relationship.
Instead of adding ‘fuel to the fire’ by criticizing negative behavior, try to interpret it actions in a positive, empathetic and optimistic way, believing in his or her capacity to change and improve as a person.
A couple can work together on:
Conflict management: finding a middle ground between the needs, perceptions of each person. Being able to put a stop to an argument by ‘agreeing to disagreeing’ or apologizing to one another when things have gone too far.
Forgiving one another, while respecting a certain threshold (too much forgiveness can negatively impact mental health).
Sacrificing and letting go of certain things for the sake of the relationship.
Taking care of and helping one another, encouraging interdependence.
Relieve one another from the stresses of life, providing unconditional emotional support.
If the relationship is going well but is facing a deadlock, here are some crucial elements that if worked on, can significantly enhance a relationship:
On an individual basis, one can:
Try to think of the couple as a ‘team’, which have a common interest in sticking together
Spend more time thinking positively about the partner and the relationship
Embrace generosity, by doing little things in an unexpected way, to show them that you care.
Be grateful, by telling the other how lucky they feel they have one another.
Praying for the partner (not religiously, but in a mindful kind of way), which will likely make one feel more compassionate about him or her.
A couple can work together on:
Maintaining a transparent communication, discussing and finding solutions to points of contention.
Reflecting on the relationship, the past, present and future.
Active listening and meaningful engagement with the inner worlds of one another.
Light-hearted humor, which can relieve stress and making challenging situations easier to handle.
Spending time doing fun activities, which will add a positive component to the relationship.
Given the above listed points, managing a relationship is a multifaceted task that involves a range of social qualities connected with emotional intelligence.
We have already briefly addressed the topic, but since we are here discussing romantic relationships, communication deserves some extra attention, as it is after all the cornerstone of any healthy and positive relationship.
How Emotional Intelligence Affects Communication
As the School of Life suggests (n.d.) many among us are “only adults by chronological age rather than by internal maturity”.
This impacts the way we communicate in our relationship in endless ways, but most particularly the way we convey to our partner that something is wrong.
Signaling is a form of communication that consists of sending out “garbled, indirect, peculiar and very unhelpful signals” (School of Life), which often leads to various misunderstandings and resentments.
The person who ‘signals’ their emotional states often does so in a clumsy and unclear way, with the hopes that the other will be able to easily read them and put words on the reasons for their distress.
Many fool themselves into believing that because someone loves us, they should also be able to read our minds efficiently and take appropriate action to correct their behavior.
This aspect (we assume that others should know), is one of four big obstacles that tend to get into the way of a good communication.
The other three are the following:
We become afraid, controlling and bossy; escape from the pain through work or alcohol.
This type of communication is essentially, counterproductive to any kind of relationship and yet it is so widespread.
You may want to have a look at this video called Honest Communication by the School of Life, which argues that often, our communication patterns are inherited legacies from our early childhoods.
Bad communication, they say,
“has its roots in the feeling that we can’t be both truthful and tolerated and loved- that who you are, isn’t enough”.
Honest communication - The School of Life
The art of communication is a gift as well as something that can be worked on, and if mastered, can serve as a stepping stone towards a more compassionate, emotionally intelligent relationship.
And research has backed this with empirical evidence, the claim that couples who adopted an emotionally intelligent approach to communication felt more satisfied with their relationships than the average couple (see Smith, Heaven, & Ciarrochi, 2008).
Regardless of whether you are married, in a long-term relationship or still on the lookout for a significant other, the following tips for improving communication skills may inspire you and significantly improve the quality of the relationship while minimizing the possibility of conflict.
In fact, the issue isn’t so much the conflict itself, but rather, the way it takes place. It’s not about what you argue, but rather, the way in which you argue.
Arguments and discussions are in fact essential to understand the perspective of the other.
But since it is often difficult for individuals to open up about their inner worlds without experiencing a degree of emotional upheaval, they raise their voices and shed the few tears that had been internally repressed at the past moment during which the issue should have been addressed.
Romantic Relationships and EI: Case Scenarios
How can we apply emotional intelligence in our romantic relationships, and develop a belief that the other will accept us, even once we have revealed to them our darkest secrets?
How would that look like?
There are a number of classic case scenarios that often arise, in which the way both partners emotionally respond to the situation will have if not an immediate one, a long-term effect in shaping the relationship dynamic.
Case 1: Emotional Distancing
Mira and Paul have been in a relationship for three years. Things at the beginning were fine, the lines of communication were open, even though there was always a feeling that they could not talk freely about everything, without fearing to be judged by the other.
Mira, who has a need to discuss her problems, realized that Paul was not so helpful or attentive in moments in which she was directly expecting him to be there for her and advise her regardless of how ‘petty’ the matter was. Mira never expressed this grievance to Paul.
As time went by, she decided that she was better off not mentioning even major dilemmas she was facing to her partner and became accustomed to confiding in her friends instead.
Paul, on the other hand, feels like Mira is not so emotionally involved any more, and feels like he is missing out on important events in her life, aside of the fact that she is less keen about getting physical. He resents her for her coldness and becomes even more distant as a defense mechanism.
What’s going on?
Since Paul and Mira don’t honestly communicate to one another what their needs and expectations of the other are from the very beginning, this has created a whirlwind of emotional insecurity which has undermined the safe space the relationship should otherwise be.
A way to resolve the issue would be to find a moment of intimacy in which one of both partners can start to express their feelings about the direction in which the relationship has headed.
This step will require insight, calmness, reflexivity, and a degree of readiness to understand the perspective of the other, regardless of how badly they may fear hearing it.
Any relationship cannot be sustainable if it is emotionally starved – and even if the needs of both are different, it is important to first vocalize and digest these differences and find a middle-ground both parties commit to work on.
In this scenario, gaining emotional intelligence skills may be pivotal for saving the relationship. However, this step requires an acknowledgement that effort is needed to improve themselves in the areas which have caused their partner grievance.
Once the smallest details have been covered, discussed and understood as worthy of attention and effort, the safety of the relationship gradually be restored, enabling Paul and Mira to deepen their intimacy and bonds to one another (for more detail, see Howard, 2018).
Case 2: Excessive Fighting
Katarina and Raphael have recently moved in together, and the adjustment phase has turned out to be more difficult than expected as they spend a lot of time bickering every day on how money should be spent, how the flat should be decorated, what should be eaten and at what frequency the flat should be cleaned.
The couple has gone tense over their diverging ideas and perspective on how ‘life should be lived’. Katarina and Raphael have very strong views of their own and struggle to find solutions to make things work. This hurting not only the relationship, but also the respect they have for one another as the list of reproaches escalate.
Both are feeling miserable and afraid that this may mean that they may not, after all, be as compatible as previously thought, and at times even evoke the possibility of breaking up.
What’s going on?
Prior to moving in with their partners, very rarely do individuals have a complete understanding of how it would be like to have all their actions and habits scrutinized on a daily basis, or the extent to which they may turn out to be unbearable in particular ways.
The freedom of singlehood emancipates us from the constraints of the other and allows us to find peace in a mode of existence that works for us.
We are then the masters of our minds, time and routines and we don’t really have anyone around us to tell us that we shouldn’t forget to close the cupboards, eat healthily or make the bed immediately upon getting up in the morning.
Lost in their romanticized ideas of love, individuals often forget that their lovers has, throughout their existence, internalized a set of ways, rituals and beliefs about space, intimacy, objects, and ‘dirt management’.
The realization that the other partner does not function in an identical way can be harrowing; and by defending our mode of proceeding we are simultaneously trying to protect our integrity and what makes us, us.
The only way to effectively resolve the conflict between Katarina and Raphael is for them to individually take some time to reflect on whether they can work towards being more tolerant towards one another as well as sit down, have a frank discussion about specific points of contention and find a way to mediate them.
In addition to these taken measures, both have to work on the language they use to communicate their disagreements, and make sure that their proceedings always involve the respect of the other person’s wellbeing.
Indeed, these relationships can quickly turn into nightmares if the two parties involve refuse to accept another perspective.
3 Emotional Intelligence Activities for Couples
Here are a few activities that may be particularly fruitful in relationships which would benefit greatly from all the social skills we have evoked so far.
The most important thing to bear in mind, is that emotional intelligence is a social capacity and perspective which can only be developed over time, through effort and exposure to experience.
While the following activities may serve as stepping stones towards rekindling the flame in your relationship, the second step (and also perhaps the most challenging one) will be to find your own personalized way to achieving the results you want to see.
You’ve probably noticed at this stage that references to the School of Life are ubiquitous; that’s because their entire work is dedicated to the development of emotional intelligence.
They have around sixty articles that creatively address the problems often faced by modern relationships, and hundreds more on topics connected to other aspects of life. In case you would like to have a look, visit this link.
So, here are a few exercises we have borrowed from them that may open new routes for improving emotional intelligence in your relationship.
What I Really Mean Is…
In the following table, fill in where appropriate what you ‘mean’ when you display specific negative behaviors, that perhaps feel threatening and destabilizing to your partner.
The list of miscommunications is, of course, arbitrary. The goal of the exercise is to reveal to our partner what we mean and think when we engage in specific behaviors.
While this may seem obvious to us, we likely underestimate the power such clarifications may have in our relationship.
List of miscommunications
What I really mean is…
What I really mean is…
Suddenly lose my temper
Criticize you for…
Have a very long bath…
Flirt with someone else…
Stay on my phone…
The following exercise has a similar objective. This time, we will be looking at sulking behavior, that is, instances when one partner became morose and emotionally withdrawn for, it seems, no particular reason.
The small unspoken grudges couples hold against one another are directly linked to emotional mismanagement, as well as a fear to disclose certain needs that we may have to other that we may feel ashamed about.
Remembering moments in which one of the partners suddenly starting brooding in an inexplicable fashion and understanding what may have caused such a reaction may serve as a first step towards understanding how they truly feel about certain aspects of romantic life.
Explaining in detail how that specific instance felt may, furthermore, encourage both partners to become more emotionally aware of the emotional inner worlds of one another.
Try to recall a particular occasion in which you were sulking, and explain:
Why you got upset
What you felt
Why it was so hard to say it directly
What you think may be the reason for this difficulty.
Time to delve back into our childhoods for some reflection. As we have seen, often the way we communicate today is directly to be linked with how we were treated as a child and whether we felt sufficiently listened to or not.
Rather than an ‘activity’, the following emotional intelligence questions can serve as a conversation opener for the couple to explore and understand the patterns of relatedness that characterized their childhoods and may explain some of the cryptic communication styles that they adopt today.
What did you learn about communication from your parents?
What did they do when they were upset?
Were you helped to find the words?
What role models did you have?
What were you allowed to do with your angry and upset moods?
A Take-Home Message
We’ve looked at emotional intelligence as a social capacity and perspective that plays an important part in our relationships. It is only possible to develop EI over time – through our actions, efforts, and as we experience different aspects of our romantic relationships.
How do you feel about the concepts we’ve covered today? Let us know in the comments!
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About the author
Catherine Moore has a BSc in Psychology from the University of Melbourne. She enjoys researching and using her HR knowledge to write about Positive and Organizational psychology. When she isn’t getting super ‘psyched’ about her favorite topics of creativity, motivation, engagement, learning, and happiness, she loves to surf and travel.